Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik

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As the mists were lifting above the lake, a small
boat—a dugout canoe—was taking the chieftain's body on his last journey, beyond the water toward the island of the dead. Like a shadow, the island emerged from the mist, surrounded by the dark green waters of Lake Onega. The shaman pounded his drum; the elders wielded symbols of their community, shaped in the image of the moose; and the boatmen hurried on to release their load. As the boat drew closer to the shore, a pair of swans took off from the shallows. This was a good omen. They were taking with them the soul of the deceased, his freed and timeless soul, northward to the underworld, and the mood of the living lifted with the mists. The soul of the old chieftain was about to be buried amid feasting and ceremonies, together with his earthly remains, symbols of office, ceremonial dagger and other weapons, headdress, pendants and necklaces, and various other possessions. Rays of the early summer sun broke through the cloud, more than eight thousand years ago.

In local folklore Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik (also called Olenii Ostrov or Deer Island) was known as the island of the dead, but it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the local population discovered that the island held the largest Mesolithic cemetery in Europe. More than eight thousand years ago people were buried there, and the picture sketched here is based on a reconstruction of events occurring at that time (fig. 1). The body in the rich grave numbered 100 may indeed have belonged to a shaman or a chieftain.

Located on a small island within Lake Onega in Karelia, the cemetery was discovered as a consequence of quarrying activities in the 1920s, and many of the graves were destroyed or disturbed before excavation. Excavated by Soviet archaeologists in the 1930s and 1950s, the cemetery was subsequently interpreted in several different ways. In all, archaeologists managed to excavate 177 burials in 141 distinct mortuary features, but the total number of burials must have been nearer 500. Radiocarbon dating of the skeletons places the cemetery in a period between 6400 and 6000 B.C. This unexpectedly early date is fully consonant with the Mesolithic character of artifacts from the site.

It seems that two groups, possibly lineages or clans, were using Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik. This is evident from two spatial clusters within the cemetery: the northern cluster is associated with moose sculptures (fig. 2) and the southern cluster with snake and human effigies. The snake and human representations seem to be combined into a single zooanthropomorphic tradition, different from the northern group, whose identity was symbolized by moose representations. Thus, two separate populations shared the use of Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik. The northern cluster was used by people with northern European and Uralic features, more indigenous to the area, while the southern area was used by people with southern European and Siberian features, who might have been newcomers to the area. This interpretation underlines the genetic heterogeneity of the people who used the cemetery. Rather than supporting the existence of two distinct, noncommunicating groups, these graduated differences in appearance and genetic makeup instead may reflect "unimpeded gene flow" across the forest zone of eastern Europe, brought about by long-distance travel, intermarriage, and partner exchange that was usual among the northern hunter-gatherer populations.

In all, 7,132 artifacts were found with the burials, and the vast majority consisted of the pierced incisors of moose (4,372 pieces) and beavers (1,155 items) and bear tusks (170 artifacts), modified to hang as a part of a headdress, pendant, or necklace. The remaining artifacts included six bone daggers, thirteen flint and sixty slate ritual knives, carved bone or stone pendants, and fourteen sculptures made of antler. More utilitarian tools included harpoons, fishhooks, sinkers, awls, needles, flint blades, scrapers, spearheads, and arrow points made from both bone and flint. Unworked animal bones were relatively rare and included those of beaver, reindeer, moose, wolf, bear, and dog.

The number and composition of grave goods, together with burial arrangements and elaboration of the graves, formed the basis of mortuary analysis and interpretation of the social composition of the Oleneostrovskii society. Such mortuary analysis revealed the existence of at least seven social dimensions, expressing band membership; social differentiation related to gender, age, and personal wealth; and three other specialized ranks. Gender distinctions were expressed through the articles placed in the graves of the deceased. Bone points, bone harpoons, axes, flakes, and slate knives were associated with males. An absence of implements but inclusion of ornaments and perforated beaver incisors was associated with females.

The types of perforated tooth pendants exhibited a clear hierarchical order relative to each other, which corresponded to the number and variety of other goods found in the graves. Graves with bear tusks denoted the wealthiest people, followed by graves containing either moose or beaver incisors, and, finally, graves with no pendants. These wealth ranks varied with age, so that the adults possessed the greatest quantities, while the young and the old had fewer goods. Such age-dependent change was less pronounced among females, possibly indicating that female wealth markers were obtained through either affinal or consanguine ties to males.

In four shaft graves at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik, there are interments that are significantly different from the others, and in terms of grave architecture, treatment of the body and the grave goods relate to shamanistic roles and symbols. In contrast to the others, these graves are oriented westward. They include two males, one female, and one juvenile—in a seated or reclining position. Their interpretation as shamans' graves relies on their western orientation (while others faced east), which can be explained as facing the entrance to the underworld, the domain of spirit ancestors of the shamans and of the rulers of the underworld. The recovery of beaver mandibles from one of these graves reinforces the argument, since mandibles of beaver form part of the shamans' attire among some Siberian groups, in reference to the perceived medicinal and ritual qualities of the beaver. The presence of beaver incisors in the shaft graves, irrespective of sex, is significant, as this category of pendants normally is associated with females at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik. Both men and women took on the shaman's role as spiritual mediator with the underworld; consequently, the shaman's robe retained symbols of both genders.

Two other special ranks are represented at the cemetery. The first can be seen in a series of eleven individuals, all male, who were interred with bone projectile points as the sole grave good, suggesting the presence of a sodality, or all-male hunting group with special abilities or responsibilities connected to hunting. The second rank is represented by a set of nine graves—two in the southern cluster and seven in the northern one—where the deceased were buried with carved effigies. This social status could be held by adults of either sex and was most common among older individuals. It was independent of personal wealth, as all three wealth ranks were represented among these burials. The apparent relationship between the effigies and the spatially separate clusters of the cemetery suggests that these persons held some office or social position related to the central ritual identity of the bands. The range of ages among the officeholders (from adolescent to old) and the independence from personal wealth may suggest an ascriptive or hereditary dimension to this social position.

The elaborate burial in grave 100 represents one of the shaft burials, where the individual, a robust middle-aged male, was buried in a reclining position. The deceased was sent off to another world with more than five hundred artifacts carefully placed over and around his body, particularly around the head and shoulders, around the pelvic region, and below the knees. This arrangement suggests that some of the pendants were attached to what was perhaps a funeral garment and possibly a headdress. The deceased was equipped with a quiver that held arrows and a large bone dagger with flint inserts. It has been suggested that the placement of these artifacts, the almost vertical positioning of the body, and other features of the burial rite indicate that the deceased was exposed for viewing intentionally, so as to produce a memorable visual effect.

The construction of the grave was equally elaborate. The body was buried in a long pit covered in ochre, sealed by a layer of sand, and topped by large stones. Possibly, an external sign, such as a wooden pole, marked the location of the burial. There were three other persons interred in such vertical or sloping shaft graves. Both males and females could assume this social status, and it seemed to have a positive correlation with an individual's wealth, as three of the four individuals possessed grave assemblages of the highest wealth level. The range of artifacts and the conditions of burial are consistent with one researcher's observation that these are the graves of ritual specialists, or shamans. It was the shamans, or the effigy holders, who were most likely to act as community elders or chieftains.

In summary, while the ritual roles could be inherited (as evidenced by child or juvenile effigy holders), the wealth could not. It tended to decline in old age. Such patterned decline in status goods with age may reflect intergenerational circulation of symbolic artifacts as age- and gender-related social roles were passed from one age group to another. Much of the grave equipment reflected the age and sex-specific social role of an individual at the time of death. At the same time, both men and women could acquire a high-status position, although men tended to acquire higher rank more often than did women.

Over what period of time was Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik used? The length of use and the frequency of interments have a major bearing on the broader significance of the cemetery. O'Shea and Zvelebil's reconstruction of the Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik cemetery and its society suggests that a community of about four hundred to five hundred people used the cemetery. The duration of its use was relatively brief, perhaps 80 to 120 years, or four to six generations. Other researchers have identified chronological differences between the northern and southern clusters within the cemetery and posit a longer period of use, perhaps as long as five hundred years. On the available evidence, this would mean one burial every three years.

Even if we accept that the total number of people buried was about five hundred, it would mean that there was about one burial per year. Used so intermittently, Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik could not have acted effectively as an ideological and ethnocultural sacral center, a necropolis founded by a chieftain ancestor that was central to the identity of the group, or a focus for seasonal gatherings meant to maintain extensive social ties of the broader community. Even though burial of people at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik probably was selective, its adduced function would have required one or two ceremonial gatherings per year (late spring and early autumn). This would suggest a shorter, rather than longer episode of use, on the order of one hundred to two hundred years.

Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik is only one among several burial grounds in northern and circum-Baltic Europe displaying such mortuary variation. Other similar cemeteries have been found in Scandinavia, Northwest Russia, and the eastern Baltic. Mortuary analysis of major burial grounds, such as Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik, Skateholm (Sweden), or Zvejnieki (Latvia), indicates that many of the Mesolithic communities in northern and eastern Europe correspond to the "delayed-return" foragers in the ethnographic record (i.e., foragers invest in food-procuring activities that have long-term results, such as building fish weirs or dams). Social structure in the Mesolithic appears to have been more hierarchically ranked than was the case among the more complex hunter-gatherers of modern times. Status distinctions along the major social dimensions of age, sex, and achieved status are discernible in general terms, and there is evidence for inherited social differentiation (inherited social stratification) at Skateholm, Zvejnieki, and Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik as well as at other cemeteries along the Atlantic coast in Denmark, France, and Portugal.

The Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik cemetery also gives a wealth of information about the cosmological beliefs held by the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. This system of beliefs, structured by analogy to more modern Siberian shamanism, is based on the concept of a three-tier universe (upper or sky world, middle or earth world, and the underworld associated with water, ocean, and the north). The tiers are linked by a turu, or a tree of life, providing a conceptual axis linking the three worlds. It is further based on the existence of more souls than one, including at least the free soul and the body soul. The body soul is manifested by breathing and it lives and dies with an individual; the free soul enters a human or an animal at birth, perhaps from an ancestor, and departs at death to the underworld, or sometimes to the upper world depending on the status of the individual. Communication takes place between human beings and deities, spirits, and animal beings for the benefit of the whole living community. Most communication was conducted by shamans with the help of spirits, among whom the most prominent took the shape of waterbirds (as swimmers and fliers that could lead the shaman to all three worlds), bear (as the master of other animal beings), and moose or deer (as a messenger celestial being, a guide to the heavens, and a link between the three worlds). Artifacts at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik are replete with symbolism that can be understood by reference to these meanings, and similar motifs and symbols are replicated on rock carvings and paintings of the region, as at Besov Nos on Lake Onega, on the White Sea petroglyphs, and elsewhere in northern Europe.

It is within this ritual and cosmological context that people from the Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik community were buried—often on islands or promontories; marked by ritual separation by water from settlements; and guided by animal spirits, such as images of swans, duck, or moose and deer, to the other worlds. Ceremonies involved extraterrestrial communication by shamans with the aid of ritual equipment: the drum, mask, headdress, bag, and bones or images of ritually significant animals—beaver, snake, waterbirds, deer, and bear. Finds at the cemetery reflect this ritual code of practice.

In such ways, people of the Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik community and beyond—indeed, the people of the Mesolithic in northern and temperate Europe—could make sense of the world around them. With the aid of such understanding, they could organize their social roles and relationships and negotiate with one another for power, prestige, and social standing in the community within an accepted code of practice. These social roles and social standings were played out and remembered in rituals surrounding death and symbolized by artifacts deposited in their burials. Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik, together with other burial grounds, offers an exceptionally informative and specific glimpse into the social lives and communal beliefs of hunting and gathering people eight thousand years ago.

See alsoSkateholm (vol. 1, part 2).


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Marek Zvelebil